A group of 12 year olds on a school field trip waited in the grassy area at the corner of Portobello Rd.
One of the children pointed to a small cave at the foot of the cliff nearby. “That’s where they kept the Maori prisoners!” He declared to his fascinated audience.
It’s a persistent rumour, and one that half a life later, I decided to investigate.
First off, who exactly are the prisoners referred to in the rumour? The legend often associates them with Parihaka, but that’s not entirely correct. The prisoners linked with this cave are a group of 74 Pakakohe Maori who surrendered at the conclusion of Titokowaru’s War in Taranaki in 1869. They were convicted of high treason and sentenced to death, but their sentences were reduced to terms of imprisonment in Dunedin’s Gaol.
It was remarked upon their arrival that the group was mostly made up of elderly men and young boys. One, named Waiata, was so frail that he passed away soon after arriving at the gaol.
Members of the Parihaka resistance movement were imprisoned in Dunedin between 1879 and 1881, but they are not the prisoners we are concerned with here.
I approached the area from Bayfield Park, reaching Shore St just before it meets Portobello Rd. I walked towards the intersection, eyeing the cliff. Just as I thought I might have missed it, I spotted the heavy iron door.
I waded through the tall grass and examined the rusted but still sturdy door, set directly in the cliff face and shut tight. Peeking through a hole, I could just make out a narrow passage that opened out into a wider room.
And that’s all most of us will ever see of the interior.
Now to the matter that brought us here. What was the purpose of this chamber? Some argue that this is simply an innocent store room which held blasting powder for the construction of the causeway. But oral history insists the reality is more sinister.
I looked back through the newspaper archives for any mentions of the 1869 group of Maori prisoners. They arrived at Dunedin Gaol and are mentioned several times as being housed there. There was a boat arranged to take them to the site of the Anderson’s Bay road works every morning before they started work. So we can conclude from this that they were most certainly not officially kept in a cramped cave under a cliff.
Edward Ellison, of the Ngai Tahu runanga, is one who has received oral history regarding this matter through his family. His perspective is that the cave was used as a temporary holding cell during breaks or bad weather.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it seems clear that conditions must have been far from ideal, as 18 of the 74 died during their term of imprisonment. They had difficulty with the cold climate and I’d bet that hard labour wasn’t exactly great for the elderly members of the group.
I walked around the corner and paid my respects to the rongo rock, memorial to the those who died during their imprisonment in Dunedin. Nearby is a small cave at the base of the cliff, barred by a metal grate.
Gazing into the darkness, I couldn’t see the end of the narrow tunnel. This is the cave that my schoolmate pointed out all those years ago, but strangely all the debate seems to surround the door around the corner without mentioning this cave at all. Do the two connect somewhere in the darkness under the hill? Are they related at all?
We may never be able to prove exactly what happened here 140 years ago, but the image the story left me with, of hapless prisoners crammed into a damp tiny cave, still haunts me.
So next time you visit Andersons Bay, spare a thought for those laboured on the road there.
Note: A previous version of the article claimed that the Pakakohe Maori built the Andersons Bay causeway, but this is incorrect.